By Richard S Ehrlich
BANGKOK - American officials hoping to extradite Viktor Bout on Wednesday from Thailand were unable to fly the suspected Russian international arms dealer to New York because the United States added fresh allegations against him that must be heard or dismissed in a Thai court.
A sleek white twin-engine jet from the US reportedly waited in vain on the tarmac at Bangkok's Don Muang air force base on Wednesday only to be told that Bout would not be handed over without jumping through some additional legal hoops.
"We are not sending Viktor Bout back today. There are still several legal steps to go through," Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva said on Wednesday. "Before Bout's extradition can take place, the second case needs to be dropped by the court," Foreign Ministry spokesman Thani Thongpakdi said the same day.
The problem could still be quickly sorted out by US officials and a Bangkok judge, allowing Bout to immediately be flown to New York. Or his closely watched case could meander through Thailand's court system, resulting in a delay or cancelation of his extradition which eventually permits him to walk free.
The surprising development prompted a glimmer of hope among those defending Bout because the extradition ruling said he must be sent to New York within 90 days or else be released.
The US attempt to extradite Bout "has descended close to farce, with Thai agencies squabbling about how to proceed," reported London's Financial Times on Wednesday.
American prosecutors created the snafu in February when they added financial crimes - including money laundering and wire fraud - to a US list of reasons why Bout should be extradited to New York to stand trial.
Those seemingly tighter charges were added in August 2009 because a lower Bangkok court rejected New York's extradition request, which was based on a sting operation led by undercover US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agents who bugged Bout in a Bangkok hotel and then arrested him in March 2008.
Bout and the agents reportedly discussed a deal involving unmanned drones, rocket-propelled grenades, surface-to-air missiles and other weapons and ammunition. The March 2008 sting, however, was deemed insufficient grounds to extradite the Russian because, as a lower court judge ruled, no weapons or money were produced in Bangkok.
The court ruled it was not a crime for foreigners to simply discuss illegal activity in Thailand if they did not commit any actual crime. A Grand Jury's "Count One" in the United States of America vs Viktor Bout case, filed in New York's Southern District court, is titled: "Conspiracy to Kill United States Nationals."
The DEA said it convinced Bout to sell weapons to Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrillas, which could be used to kill US citizens in South America, but the Thai lower court judge also said FARC was not considered a "terrorist" group by the Thai government.
After the US added the financial crimes to their allegations against Bout, an appeals court agreed on August 20 to extradite him, but warned that the alleged financial crimes must now be heard by a separate court in Bangkok or formally withdrawn - which meant he could not be sent to New York on Wednesday as planned.
The new US indictment reportedly said New York prosecutors wanted to seize Bout's alleged accounts at Wachovia, the International Bank of Commerce, Deutsche Bank, and the Israel Discount Bank of New York.
Bout allegedly hid his name behind a front company, Samar Airlines, and tried to buy two Boeing aircraft while a US ban was in force against any American company or bank doing business with him.
Nicknamed the "Lord of War" and "Merchant of Death," the former Soviet air force officer and linguist is purportedly one of the world's biggest private weapons dealers. Weapons sold or delivered by Bout allegedly boosted rebel wars in Africa, the Middle East and South America, with customers including Liberia's Charles Taylor, Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi, Afghanistan's Taliban and others.
"Governments - particularly the US, British and French - and the United Nations used his aircraft long after it was known who he was, and what types of business he was engaged in," said Douglas Farah, who has written extensively on Bout's deals.
In a separate twist, a parliamentarian in Thai Prime Minister Abhisit's ruling Democrat Party, Sirichok Sopha, said on Wednesday he visited Bout in prison in April, but Sirichok denied opposition politicians' allegations that he was trying to get the Russian to somehow frame former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra.
"Let me explain about my involvement with Victor Bout, his lawyer has confirmed I met with Victor. This is true, but my meeting was not about faulting or framing Thaksin," Sirichok said.
The parliamentarian and close aide to the prime minister said he instead wanted to ask Bout if he knew anything about an airplane which landed in Bangkok on December 12, 2009, with more than 30 tons of weapons onboard, purportedly being smuggled from North Korea to Europe or the Middle East.
The plane's cargo was seized by Thailand, but the five-man crew - mostly from Belarus and Kazakhstan - were eventually released with no independent confirmation about who financed the smuggling operation, who sent the Ilyushin Il-76 cargo plane from Pyongyang, or where the weapons were ultimately destined.
"Thailand’s efforts in counter-proliferation have also directly contributed to regional peace, and were on full-display last year when Thai police interdicted a substantial shipment of arms from North Korea," US Under Secretary for Political Affairs William Burns said during a visit to Bangkok on July 16.
Perhaps coincidentally, relations between Bangkok and Moscow recently suffered because of Thailand's most wanted criminal, fugitive former premier Thaksin, though that spat was never publicly linked to Bout's appeal against extradition.
In April, Thailand's Foreign Minister harshly criticized Russia for briefly hosting Thaksin, who Bangkok wants sent home to serve a two-year prison sentence for corruption.
"Everyone is washing their hands, but he [Thaksin] is a bloody terrorist," Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya said in April.
"There is this act of interference by third countries - how can the Russians allow him there for two days or the Germans before that?"
Despite that frost, Bout and his lawyer said they would plead with Thailand's Foreign Ministry, and also its monarchy, to ignore the extradition order and set him free - which observers predicted would not be likely.
"Viktor Bout allegedly made a career of arming bloody conflicts and supporting rogue regimes across multiple continents, even using the US banking system to secretly finance a fleet of aircraft," US Attorney Preet Bharara said in February.
"The United Nations and the United States have long-standing sanctions against Bout that stem from, among other things, his support of the most violent and destabilizing conflicts in recent African history," Bharara had said earlier.
A United Nations Security Council sanctions committee on Liberia said Bout had supported Liberia's former president Charles Taylor to destabilize neighboring Sierra Leone and steal its so-called "blood diamonds".
Bout's aliases include Boris, Victor But, Viktor Budd, Viktor Butt, Viktor Bulakin and Vadim Markovich Aminov, according to DEA Special Agent Robert F Zachariasiewicz, who signed the original 2008 charges presented to the court in New York.
Evidence presented in Bangkok included wiretapped telephone and e-mail messages between a US-paid DEA "confidential source" and Andrew Smulian, who was allegedly Bout's partner before being arrested in America.
One e-mail message, allegedly from Bout to the agent, ended: "Best Regards Friend of Andrew," apparently referring to Mr Smulian.
The DEA also displayed what it called "a map of South America that Bout reportedly used in discussions about the locations of American radar stations", which might monitor his cargo planes during deliveries to the FARC guerrillas.
The DEA also showed what they described as "notes handwritten by Bout during the meeting regarding the details of the weapons deal" in Bangkok, allegedly listing anti-aircraft guns, AK-47 assault rifles, an unmanned aerial vehicle, 10 million rounds of ammunition for sniper rifles and machine guns, plus rocket launchers and grenade launcher.
The US Attorney's Office for the Southern District of New York provided the documents to the Washington-based Federation of American Scientists (FAS), which was concerned about where the weapons might be located and how they could be seized, especially a purported missile.
"It appears that missile on offer was the AT-4 Spigot, a wire-guided Russian missile system that has a maximum range of 2,000-2,500 meters and can penetrate up to 400-460mm of armor, depending on the type of missile used," FAS said in October.
FAS said it was also concerned about locating "100 shoulder-fired, surface-to-air missiles," which could shoot down military and commercial planes.
It was unclear if Bout actually had personal access to any weapons allegedly discussed in the Bangkok hotel room.
Richard S Ehrlich is a Bangkok-based journalist from San Francisco, California....
By Richard Solash
He has seven aliases, a handful of passports, and has been described by US officials as one of the world's most prolific arms traffickers, with clients ranging from the Taliban to Liberian warlord Charles Taylor.
But today Viktor Bout sits in a cell in Thailand awaiting extradition to the United States to face criminal charges, including conspiracy to kill US nationals and provide material support to terrorists, that could put him behind bars for life.
A 43-year-old former Soviet Air Force officer, Bout was the inspiration for the 2005 film Lord of War starring Nicholas Cage. He allegedly funneled weapons to conflict zones in South America, the Middle East and Africa.
Douglas Farah, co-author of a 2007 book about Bout titled The Merchant of Death, says Bout had an uncanny ability to move weapons to trouble spots that were inaccessible to most arms traffickers.
"As someone told me in the book, he was the ultimate mailman and you never shoot the mailman," Farah says. "There were very few other people who could deliver what he could deliver, across the African continent particularly, but also in Afghanistan, where you have no roads, no trains, no other method of transportation."
Bout says he runs a legitimate air-transport business and denies involvement in illicit activities. He has long evaded attempts by the United Nations to block his travel and financial activities.
"He was violating UN arms sanctions on different countries, but the punishment for that is for the UN to say, 'You're a bad person, please don't do it again,' and then you just keep on flying, which is what he did," Farah says. "So there was no specific law of any specific country that he had violated, which made it very difficult for the amorphous United Nations structure to ever do anything."
Bout was arrested in a luxury Bangkok hotel in March 2008 in an elaborate sting operation in which US agents posed as arms buyers from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia (FARC).
A Thai appeals court ordered Bout's extradition last week, following more than a decade of attempts by US and international law enforcement to bring him to justice.
Russia fiercely opposes Bout's extradition. Speaking to reporters in Yerevan on August 20, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov suggested that the court's ruling was political.
"We regret what in my opinion is an unlawful, political decision that the appeals court in Thailand has made," Lavrov said. "According to the information available to us, this decision was made under very strong pressure from the outside. This is sad."
Bout's extradition was originally scheduled to take place on August 25, but Thai officials announced that would be delayed because all the necessary legal procedures had not been completed.
The son of an accountant and an auto mechanic, Bout was born in the Soviet Union in Dushanbe, now the capital of Tajikistan. He has at times claimed to be from Ashgabat, Turkmenistan, and has also been identified as Ukrainian.
Bout studied at the Military Institute of Foreign Languages in Moscow and is said to speak six languages. After graduating, he became an officer in the Soviet Air Force and was initially posted to Angola, where he is alleged to have worked for the KGB.
Bout, however, denies any connection to the Soviet intelligence agency.
Whether or not the speculation about KGB ties is true, analysts say Bout appears to enjoy high-level connections among the Russian political elite.
"It is clear that he has a very high respect in Russia. How do you say it in Russian? He has a 'roof' [protection from high officials] in Russia. And it is very high," Farah told RFE/RL's Russian Service recently.
Bout left the military in the early 1990s as the Soviet Union collapsed and began assembling a fleet of more than 50 cargo planes cast off by the government for a private shipping business.
'The Merchant of Death'
In the ensuing years, the US indictment alleges, Bout and his associates traveled the world and used a network of front companies to channel massive quantities of arms and ammunition from poorly-guarded Soviet arsenals to militants and despots in Africa, Asia, and South America.
According to Farah, Bout also transported attack helicopters, antiaircraft systems, and antitank-mine systems - making it "highly unlikely" that he did not have at least tacit support from Russian intelligence.
The most well-documented case involving Bout concerns former Liberian president Charles Taylor, who is now on trial for war crimes for his involvement in Sierra Leone's vicious civil war of the 1990s.
In UN documents, Bout was identified as a "dealer and transporter of weapons and minerals [who] supported former President Taylor's regime in [an] effort to destabilize Sierra Leone and gain illicit access to diamonds."
Bout also allegedly armed both the Taliban and the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan, various Congolese factions, Libyan strongman Muammar Gaddafi, and both sides of Angola's civil war. He has also been accused in Western media reports of ferrying weapons to al-Qaeda and of delivering Russian arms to Hezbollah in Lebanon ahead of the 2006 war with Israel.
In an interview with Britain's Channel 4 News last year, Bout admitted that his planes brought weapons into Afghanistan in the mid-1990s, but said they were to supply the government and not the Taliban. He has vehemently denied any business dealings with al-Qaeda and maintains he ran a legitimate cargo business.
A worldwide brand
Indeed, Farah says at least part of his fortune, at one time estimated to be billions of dollars, was amassed by transporting everything from flowers to chicken on the flights back from weapons deliveries.
In perhaps the most ironic twist of Bout's career, his companies were hired by the United States and its contractors in the early 2000s to ship goods into Iraq.
Most of these flights, which according to Farah numbered into the hundreds, occurred after former president George W Bush had issued an executive order making it illegal to do business with Bout, identifying him as a security threat to the United States. Farah says that even after the mistake was identified, the flights continued.
Bout's companies were reportedly used by the United Nations to transport peacekeepers to Somalia, French troops to Rwanda, humanitarian goods to post-tsunami Sri Lanka.
He also transported hostage negotiators to the Philippines, when in 2000, a group of tourists were being held by the militant organization Abu Sayyaf - to whom Bout had allegedly supplied arms in the past. He was also a key arms supplier to the Bosnian Muslims during the 1992-95 war in Bosnia-Herzegovina, according to Farah.
After years of skirting officials and operating by proxy around the globe, Interpol issued a 2002 arrest warrant for Bout in connection with a money-laundering case. By that time, he had made his way back to Russia, where the government said there was no evidence to suggest he had committed illegal actions. It has maintained that position.
Analysts say that should Bout eventually be extradited, it would be a major victory for the United States, which would have the opportunity to glean valuable information about Russian intelligence and militant groups around the world.
Speaking to reporters in Bangkok on August 20, Bout's wife, Alla, accused the United States of leaning on the Thai authorities to extradite here husband.
"I believe that in this issue there's been tremendous pressure from the American side," she said. "The Americans have been quite open in letting the world know that they will exert pressure on the Thai side to get my husband extradited to the US....."
By Bertil Lintner
BANGKOK - While Bangkok-based observers weigh the legal merits of extraditing alleged Russian gunrunner Viktor Bout to the United States, a far more important issue seems to have eluded the media: why is Washington so eager to get its hands on Bout and why is Moscow doing everything in its power to prevent that from happening?
Bout was caught in a sting operation in Bangkok in March 2008 when US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agents, posing as representatives of the Colombian narco-rebel movement Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC), claimed that they wanted to buy a large consignment of weapons from him.
Notably there had been no other reports of Bout's alleged involvement in the international arms trade since he reportedly flew weapons from a base in the Middle East to virtually every conflict zone in Africa during the 1990s and early 2000s. Russia claims that he is innocent of the charges, insisting that he is just an ordinary businessman.
Underscoring that official claim, Vladimir Kozin, deputy director of the information and press department at Russia's Foreign Ministry, wrote in the Moscow Times on August 26 that Washington's attempts to extradite Bout "may inevitably affect Russian-US relations to the detriment of the US effort to 'reset' them".
So why then all the geopolitical fuss over Bout? One plausible answer was ventured in another recent Moscow Times opinion piece by Yulia Latynina, host of a political talk show on Russia's Ekho Moskvy radio station. She pointed out that Bout served in Mozambique in the 1980s, along with a man named Igor Sechin, who today serves as Russia's deputy prime minister and who is widely considered the second-most-important person in that country after Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. The op-ed article was headlined "Bout, Sechin and a Political Firestorm".
According to a court statement by DEA special agent Robert Zachariasiewicz, undercover agents in Bangkok were told that Bout had 100 Russian-made Igla surface-to-air missiles available immediately. The DEA agents had advised Bout that they needed anti-aircraft weapons to kill American pilots on anti-drug missions in Colombia.
According to the same court documents submitted by the DEA, "Bout indicated that he could supply the FARC with 700 to 800 surface-to-air missiles, 5,000 AK-47 firearms, millions of rounds of ammunition, various Russian spare parts for rifles, anti-personnel mines and C-4 explosives, night-vision equipment, 'ultralight' airplanes, which could be outfitted with grenade launchers and missiles, and unmanned aerial vehicles, which have a range of 200 to 300 kilometers."
Latynina wrote in her article: "The delivery of 100 Russian anti-aircraft missiles appears to be a government-sponsored program ... it is frightening to consider what Bout could tell US authorities about who promised to provide him with [those] 100 Russian anti-aircraft weapons."
Sechin is seven years older than Bout, and they both are linguists fluent in Portuguese and French. Bout served under Sechin in the 1980s in Portuguese-speaking Mozambique, when, officially, Sechin was an interpreter with the then Soviet trade and diplomatic mission there. However, according to http://rt.com website, "Some consider this to be the beginning of [Sechin's] career at the KGB. He was allegedly the USSR's point man for weapons smuggling to Latin America and the Middle East."
Douglas Farah, author of a controversial biography about Bout, pointed out in a Foreign Policy article on August 20: "[Bout's] knowledge base, although he is only 43 years old, goes back more than two decades and possibly extends to the heart of the Russian campaigns around the globe."
If accurate, it could go a long way toward explaining why Russia doesn't want to see him extradited to the US. And that may be what Washington wants more than just to bust Bout for alleged gunrunning. Some suggest a plea-bargain could be offered by the US whereby Bout would be treated leniently if he is found guilty in exchange for sharing what he may know about any possible Russian clandestine arms dealings.
Bout is not the only alleged global arms dealer in the US's sights. Syrian millionaire and alleged arms dealer Monzer al-Kassar/CIA was arrested in Spain in 2007 in a similar sting operation organized by US authorities. He had also been indicted on charges of seeking to sell weapons, including surface-to-air missiles, to FARC. After a year of legal wrangling, al-Kassar/CIA was eventually extradited to the US.
In September 2006, Indonesian arms dealer Hadja Subandi and a group of Sri Lankan and Singaporean associates were arrested in a sting on the Pacific Island of Guam, a US territory. They were accused of trying to sell US$900,000 worth of surface-to-air missiles and other sophisticated weaponry to the Sri Lankan separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam rebel group.
It has been clear for more than a decade that Western security services have been concerned over the proliferation of man-portable air defense systems, or MANPADS, including the shoulder-launched Igla surface-to-air missiles Bout was allegedly trying to sell to the FARC. The US has been more active than any other country in trying to secure stocks of these missiles, persuading governments to destroy obsolescent stocks while cracking down on arms merchants dealing in them and identifying the actual suppliers of such weapons.
"When you have al-Kassar in 2007 and Viktor Bout in 2008 caught in strikingly similar sting operations, a pattern clearly emerges,” says Anthony Davis, a security analyst with IHS-Jane's, a military information group. That pattern is precisely why the US is on a collision course with Russia, where many surface-to-air missiles are manufactured and from where they later somehow find their way onto black markets. China is another, even more important, source of surface-to-air missiles and other sophisticated weaponry that is bought and sold on underground international markets.
Bout was in prison in Bangkok when Thailand was shaken by another incident involving Russian arms traders. A Russian-made Il-76 was impounded on December 12, 2009, in Bangkok with 35 tonnes of weapons on board. The plane had flown from North Korea and was on its way to Iran, and according to Latynina the shipment was allegedly "owned by a firm controlled by Bout".
Bout could not possibly have organized arms shipments to anywhere while in prison. However, Latynina traced the ownership of the plane to Air West Georgia, which does have its registered address in the former Soviet republic of Georgia but whose actual location is at Vnukovo Airport in Moscow. According to Latynina, Air West is also listed in the business directory Gde24.ru as being located "near the Okhotny Road metro station and just a stone's throw from the Kremlin and the headquarters of [the KGB's successor agency] the Federal Security Service on Lubyanskaya Ploshchad."
It is unlikely, however, that the ultimate destination for the Russian-organized arms shipment from North Korea was Iran, which has its own arsenal of relatively small weapons similar to those on the Il-76 plane. Iran has for years armed the Hezbollah militia in Lebanon with weapons through its Syrian allies. That Russian-made weapons may end up in the hands of Islamic extremist groups is for the US a far more serious security concern than deliveries to Columbia's FARC. The North Korean shipment is reported to have included MANPADS of unknown origin.
According to security analyst Davis, the US and others are especially worried about the black-market proliferation of Russia's 9K38 Igla, which the US Department of Defense designates as SA-18, an improved version of the simpler 9K310 Igla-1, or SA-16 Gimlet. It is uncertain which kind of Igla Bout was allegedly trying to sell to the undercover DEA agents in Bangkok, but the SA-18, according to Davis, is capable of avoiding counter weapons carried on targeted aircraft.
If Hezbollah could access such weapons, it would be a serious concern for Israel, a close US strategic ally. Even more alarmingly, if the Taliban or al-Qaeda gained access to MANPADS of that degree of sophistication it would raise even greater risks for the US and its allied forces in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Thus, the main question remains: what does Bout know and would he be willing to talk once he has been extradited to the United States? When this correspondent met Bout in Bangkok's Remand Prison in June 2008, he was fiercely anti-American, spewing anger at the US agents who had seemingly lured him into the trap. Bout is known to be a strong nationalist and he might, if eventually extradited to the US, prefer to be a Russian hero in a US jail than serve as a turncoat source on Russia's clandestine arms business......